In the song Helpless by Neil Young, he sang that “there is a town in north Ontario…all of my changes were there.” I have always found that line beautiful. It acknowledges a place as the instigator of growth. It acknowledges that while one should not live in the past, one should not so callously disregard its importance.
If I had written that song, I would undoubtedly place Japan on that list; though no city or town particularly. The place has that effect on people–at least it did on me. Instead, I would like, from time to time, to share some of the places that my mind still lingers on.
One such place is Murphy’s. Yes, that’s right. Murphy’s. An Irish bar in the middle of the metropolis that is Osaka. And before you even ask, yes they served Murphy’s and Guinness as well as a few other Irish beers.
Osaka, like Tokyo, has its fair share of Gaijin Bars–places where foreigners and globally minded (I am loosely quoting Lonely Planet here) Japanese gather. If you’ve seen the movie Lost in Translation,….. well that is not a gaijin bar. That’s an upscale paradise where you probably have to pay a fee/charge to sit near the window–but that’s a story for another day. Gaijin bars are hard to define by their location, decor or menu. They are so described because of their clientele. I went to a beach bar that became the local gaijin bar because that is where the foreigners went. When they stopped going, it became a beach bar again.
I found myself in Murphy’s only a half a dozen times during my Japan tenure and visits back to Japan. I was no regular, but the place is a kind of lodestone for me. Whenever I write the novel set in Japan that is scratching the back of my creative brain, I am sure my main character will spend some time there, pondering life and making some conclusions–perhaps an epiphany or two. I hope James Joyce would be proud.
What is it about the place that makes it stick out in a city full of beer gardens, dive bars, beer filled convenience stores, expensive hostess bars and everything between? How do I answer? If I could channel my inner Neil Young, “there is a place is South Osaka…. strong memories live there.
I read on another blogpost, that you get off the elevator on the sixth floor and you find yourself in Ireland–albeit within a Japanese context. Fair enough. I can’t really attest to that because I most often had to climb the towering staircases because the line for the tiny elevator was too long. Though young and able, by the time I got to the top I was only interested in the beer. That and the fact that I have never been to Ireland.
I haven’t done a good job of describing the place….and it is a poor writer who cannot pin down the setting.
The first time I went there I had to follow someone else. In those days, pre-internet and certainly pre-smartphone, finding places in Japan was somewhat of an art. You had to pay attention to landmarks–preferably ones that weren’t likely to change. Store names were a poor choice, while building facades and street furniture were not. Subway numbered exits were also a good option. We had been dining at an Italian restaurant chain and made our way there. Luckily our guide knew “kind of” where it was. We appeared in front of the building that I would forever know as the “the one on the street north of exit number six with the silo like thing with a small round window attached to it.” These kinds of descriptions are not as odd as you might think.
As bars go, it isn’t particularly large. It also is fairly devoid of windows, except the porthole style window on one side looking out onto the garishly neon street below. As you can imagine, people did not go there for the view. Again, it was not the bar from Lost in Translation. A distant, distant cousin perhaps.
I guess I liked it for its moments of normalcy–though they weren’t that normal. Early on it might have been the place where I could speak English. Maybe later it was the place where I could meet Japanese people who spoke better English than my students. Maybe it was the place where, if you weren’t paying attention, you just didn’t know where you were. Irish food and drinks. Classic Rock music. The Japanese hit of the week. World Music. A smattering of languages and accents that were either easy or difficult to identify. You could have been anywhere in the world. It just had that vibe about it.
You could have been anywhere in the world.
I come from a pretty multicultural country, and a very multicultural city. Somehow this was different. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I moved there. Perhaps it was the vibe of mutability. Most of the people there were temporary–no matter how long they stayed.
The bar exerted a kind of magnetic attraction. I would be sitting there, drinking my beer and when I looked up someone I knew would be standing beside me, or behind me. I hadn’t told these people I was going to be there, nor had I expected to see them, but we bumped into each other nonetheless. This included people from my Japanese city (more than an hour away by train), my university (more than a day away by plane), from jobs I had done and people I had met while shopping for books–a source of some of my most interesting meetings (but that is a story for another day). I think if I showed up there today, almost twenty years after, I still might run into someone I know.
Everybody needs a place. On some subatomic level we are drawn to these places. We might stay for a moment or we might stay forever. It depends on the people and it depends on the place. I had been pulled to that place and its drunken nights and tiny coed bathrooms will forever remain a beautiful memory.
If you want to read another excellent post about Murphy’s please click here. If you recognize some of the pictures, it is because I
stole borrowed (with permission) the photos from this post.
If you want to check out the bar, the link to the website is here.